Students in the library at now defunct Gulf International School in Kuwait
Banned Books Week, which ends today, always reminds me of my trials and tribulations with censorship in Kuwait, a country where even Charlotte’s Web and Winnie the Pooh can inflame. The reason: Both stories contain characters who are pigs.
In early 2008, I sat with my visitor in the library of a new, and now defunct, Canadian elementary school in Kuwait, where I worked as a librarian.“So what is this book about?” asked the woman from the Ministry of Information, the official censoring body of Kuwait, one of the Muslim world’s most conservative societies. The woman wore a black chador, her hair covered with a black scarf, her plain face exposed. Simple wire frame glasses completed her earnest look, but she spoke in a gentle voice.
One of my tasks as reluctant head of the so-called Censorship Committee was to read and put aside books I thought might be axed by the Ministry of Information. The previous spring, while working as a consultant for the school, I had been most careful when selecting the 3,000- plus books for the collection, one meant to be “internationally minded” (the school, after all, was called Gulf International School), yet also respectful of Kuwaiti values. In other words: no pigs, no nudity, no Israel, no Judaism, no kissing, no homosexuality.
By giving into this ideology, I was going against my principles as a librarian and open-minded western woman. But I reminded myself that Kuwait was not my culture and I needed to respect my host country.
In readiness for the Ministry’s visit, I had put aside dozens of books — picture books, anatomy books, Arab history books, reference books, and some fiction. Now, as we sipped tea at one of the short round tables, the books I’d chosen in stacks on a table beside us, I gave her a brief summary of Daughter of Venice, by Donna Jo Napoli. The book tells the story of the 14-year-old daughter of a 16th century Venetian nobleman who disguises herself as a working class boy so she can safely explore her beloved city.
“Soon she befriends a young Jewish man (I hadn’t known this when I’d ordered it) who trains her as a scribe”, I continued. The ministry woman nodded with interest. So far so good, I thought. She’s not shocked or offended. But I hadn’t yet told her everything. “Donata, the girl, falls in love with this man,” I continued with trepidation.
“Oh. Is there kissing?” she asked.
“Do they touch?”
“No. Even when she reveals that she’s really a girl, he tells her he can only marry a Jewish girl,” I said.
“Does the book promote Judaism?”
“Not at all. It’s more about an intellectually curious girl trying to break away from an unjust fate as a nun.”
“It sounds interesting,” she said, smiling. “I think it’s fine.”
Pleasantly surprised, I put the book in the Okay pile and picked up The King of Capri, about a greedy king and his reversal of fortune. One of the humorous illustrations features the king in the buff — seen from behind — hanging up his laundry on the clothesline.
“Here you can just draw shorts on him with a black marker,” she said. “Or you can glue these two pages together.”
“Oh,” I said, closing the book and placing it on the Changes to Make pile.
Next, a book with an illustration of a baby girl wearing a pair of frilly underwear received the same treatment. I mentally patted myself on the back for not having purchased And Tango Makes Three, an award winning true story of two male penguins hatching and raising a baby chick. If the book had wreaked havoc amongst some western parents, what effect might it have had in Kuwait?
Moving on to reference sources, I picked up The Children’s Encyclopaedia of Arabia, a book I took great pride in having selected for what I saw as my collection. In a brief summary about the spread of Islam to Arabia, one part reads: “The Islamic calendar dates from Mohammed’s flight to Medina.”
The ministry woman looked up: “Flight,” she said, reflecting. “Is that from the verb to fly?” she asked.
“No. It’s the noun form of the verb to flee.”
A pregnant pause. “Does that mean to run away?”
“Yes”, I said. “It means escape.”
“No. That’s not right,” she said, shaking her head. “That has to be changed. He didn’t run away.”
“What do you propose?” I asked, not wanting to hear the answer.
“Black out the word flight. It should say something about travels.”
It’s one thing to change the word sunrise to dawn in the earlier statement about the five daily calls to prayer, I thought. That’s a factual error, after all. But was this not brainwashing?
Picking up a pencil, I said amiably: “We can only replace this word with another noun, so that the sentence makes sense. Journey perhaps?”
“Yes, journey,” she agreed. “That’s good.”
With the pencil, I lightly crossed out the word flight and wrote the word journey above. Sticking a post-it note on the page, I closed the book and put it in the Changes to make pile, knowing I would never take a marker to that beautiful book. Nor would I collude in indoctrinating the students by not allowing them to see the original word.
After escorting my visitor back to the foyer and agreeing to put more books aside for her, I returned to the library. My mind and conscience troubled, I removed all the books from the Changes pile and lugged them to the back room, where I put them on the censoring shelf, concealing them from the children and their mostly well-intentioned, but ever-watchful parents. It saddened me that for all that these parents wanted to purchase for their children a ticket to success, these kids would probably never know the real value of books: their ability to unlock minds and hearts, to set free the truth, however inconvenient.
Earlier that year, I’d given my resignation notice to the principal for the end of the school year. There’s no way I’m going to minister these books, I thought. Let someone else deal with it. I turned off the light and closed the door of the back room.
Did I do the right thing by sequestering the books?
To flout the norms of Kuwait would have been to disrespect the culture and brand myself a troublemaker, a sure way to get myself fired, deported, or worse: arrested and slammed with a travel ban. I wouldn’t have minded being fired or deported, but the prospect of living under house arrest or being imprisoned in the Gulf was too frightening to consider.
And so the books gathered dust in the back room — effectively, self-censored — for the remainder of the year.
N.B.: This piece was originally published in the Toronto Star in September 2011 -- http://www.thestar.com/life/2011/09/26/defending_literature_takes_its_toll_on_librarian_in_kuwait.html